The Irish national team has been held back by conservatism. But time has caught up.
On Thursday night at Tallaght Stadium, before Stephen Kenny spoke to reporters in his post-match press conference, there was a sense that he would be pleased with the result. The Republic of Ireland Under-21s had played out a hard-fought goalless draw with Italy Under-21s. The Azzurri had over €100m worth of talent on the pitch, players from Juventus, Atalanta and Inter Milan. At half-time, they brought on Everton’s Moise Kean and Patrick Cutrone of Wolves, two players who had cost almost €50m between them in transfer fees during the summer.
Ireland Under-21s had never qualified for the European Championships. Italy will be among the favourites for the tournament in 2021. Yet, Kenny was visibly disappointed. “We’re not ecstatic about drawing tonight. We feel we could have won the game,” he said. It wasn’t bluster either. He genuinely believed his team containing players from UCD and Waterford had missed a golden opportunity to beat Italy.
On Saturday evening in Tbilisi, following another goalless draw for an Irish team, Mick McCarthy said he was pleased with a point earned against a “very good team.” He said that, if he had have been offered four points from two games against Georgia, he would have taken it beforehand. Ireland’s senior team had failed to beat a team ranked 91st in the world – below Syria, Haiti and Oman. The manager said he was happy with a point from this game. He was happy with a result that now means Ireland must beat Denmark or Switzerland to assure qualification for Euro 2020. No-one else associated with the team was.
The respective set of comments say so much about the two managers. They offer insight into how they work, how they expect their teams to play and their views on the sport. The same outlook that prompted McCarthy to say it was a good result to draw with Georgia determined how he selected his team. The Ireland manager, who views away games through the prism of an outdated British football logic that states an away draw is a positive result, opted for James Collins ahead of Aaron Connolly to lead the line.
Connolly scored twice against Tottenham on his first start in the Premier League last week. Collins is a journeyman centre-forward who never played above League One before this season. In his 17 minutes on the pitch, Connolly had two of Ireland’s three shots on target. Collins spent the game isolated up front, barging into opposition defenders. One has the potential to be an elite player. He’s fast, skilful, intelligent and strong shooting off either foot. The other would have been a target-man for an English top-flight team in the 1980s.
McCarthy’s logic for the selection was depressing and baffling in equal measure. “I was conscious of making sure we could defend free-kicks and corners with the bodies we had on the pitch. James Collins, who has had a right old scrap up there, he was defending the six-yard box,” he said.
“I wanted him as a presence up front and I thought he was, he fought with the centre-halves and we picked up a lot of second balls off him. What we didn’t do was enough with that second ball.”
Just take a second to read that again.
McCarthy wanted a tall forward on the pitch to defend corners in a must-win match against weaker opposition. His first concern was defensive and conservative. He made a negative decision, omitting the constructive player in favour of someone who can jump higher. When he says “presence” he means tall and physically strong because he inherently distrusts skilful and small players. He praised the player for battling and being in the right place for the ball to bounce off him and into the direction of a teammate. Is there another international football team that still plays this way?
McCarthy’s outlook is framed and informed by British football logic of the 1970s and 80s. He and his defenders would bristle and retaliate at any suggestion that McCarthy is a “dinosaur” in football terms. But comments like that tell their own story. In England, managers adhering to this outlook have been washed away or down the divisions. There is a reason why no Premier League club would now appoint Sam Allardyce or Mark Hughes, David Moyes or Alan Pardew, Tony Pulis or Neil Warnock as manager. Only Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United would appoint Steve Bruce. The Proper Football Man is becoming an extinct species.
There is also a reason why Ipswich Town supporters got so tired of McCarthy he was effectively driven from the club. It wasn’t personal, at first anyway, because, other than Roy Keane, no-one seems to have a bad word to say about him. He is a decent person and a good manager at a certain level. But he is maddeningly conservative, belligerent and now desperately outdated. The football his team practices is no longer effective or widely in use. A national team is meant to represent the football of the country. The current Ireland team look like a Championship side battling relegation.
Kenny, meanwhile, doesn’t even represent the future. He represents the present. He is a modern football manager, aware of the need to build a constructive, aggressive, proactive possession-based side. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t captain his country or manage in the Championship. It is no longer enough to rely on second-balls and knockdowns from a tall centre-forward to win matches at this level of the sport. The game has moved on but the Proper Football Men haven’t. Kenny has an unwavering belief in the ability of his players and tailors a plan to bring out their best qualities. That was in evidence on Thursday night in Tallaght and it’ll soon be on show with the senior team.
Before Ireland played Denmark in that infamous World Cup play-off second leg in Dublin, RTÉ released a stirring promotional montage. Brendan Gleeson read the poem ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ by Dylan Thomas, as clips from famous Ireland football moments played.
“Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
It was fitting for what was to come. Denmark won 5-1. Ireland’s annihilation laid bare the bankruptcy of Martin O’Neill’s approach and outlook. It was no longer enough to not tactically prepare the team or to tell them the line-up an hour before kick-off. That should have been the moment to hit reset, to move away from the tired old ideas of giving it a lash and lumping the ball away. The national team clearly had to modernise and the first step was to adopt a new mindset.
However, O’Neill’s zombie team limped on and the succession plan was bizarre but also botched. Rather than opting for the progressive coach immediately, the FAI banked on the Proper Football Man to guide them to Euro 2020. The FAI are also raging against the dying of the light, hoping for one more hurrah, one more chance to stop the clocks and briefly go back to the good old days, when Ireland at a big tournament could mask countless other problems within the sport.
But those days aren’t coming back. It is no longer good enough to simply put ’em under pressure. No longer enough for the Irish national team to ape a British side fighting relegation. It is no longer good enough to start a player simply because he is tall. People want, expect and deserve more. It hasn’t helped McCarthy to know his exit date from the day he took over. But, even if he had 10 years in the position, the football wouldn’t be any better. This is it.
Kenny’s reign as the senior Ireland manager cannot come quickly enough. More than anything else, he will bring a complete change of outlook and it is desperately needed. Irish football has been paralysed by conservatism. The senior team, and the principles that govern it, are raging against the dying of the light. Whether it is on Tuesday night in Geneva, next month against Denmark or next summer at Euro 2020 in Dublin, this version of Irish football is finished. The end cannot come soon enough. It is getting there slowly, one misplaced James McClean pass at a time. Time has caught up with the regressive forces in Irish football.